John Mackey is an entrepreneurial genius. The co-founder of Whole Foods, which was sold to Amazon for $13.7 billion dollars, he has been at the forefront of the organic food movement for decades. Mackey’s company set the bar for ethical sourcing and many other innovations. He’s a sought-after speaker, serves on several boards, and has secured a significant role in the public discourse about business and capitalism. Mackey has written several books: Be The Solution (2009), Conscious Capitalism (2013), and Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business in 2020. Conscious Leadership is a good place to gain an understanding of Mackey’s philosophy and to learn how he captained Whole Foods. He’s a fascinating person with a compelling take on many issues. Reading and considering Conscious Leadership raises more than a few provocative questions for a critical reader’s consideration.
The book is organized into three sections: Vision & Virtue, Mindset & Strategy, and People & Culture. In each, Mackey offers personal examples, references other business and cultural leaders, and makes suggestions for more intentional leadership. The sections are not tightly scripted. I would wager that they emerged after Mackey put down ideas and stories, and then reworked them into this structure. He penned the book, too, with Steve McIntosh and Carter Phipps, both authors in their own right.
Basic tenets work in tandem to support Mackey’s thinking and the broader endeavor of conscious leadership and capitalism. It is neither accidental nor lacking purpose. Mackey is a libertarian, a strong believer in lightly regulated capitalism’s ability to allocate resources effectively and promote economic well-being. In fact, his affirmation of capitalism – and heroic capitalists – pervades the text. He’s a moral thinker and his arguments are often framed in moral terms. This is not a common stratagem among business leaders and it’s a most interesting perspective. He returns repeatedly to questions of purpose, of value, and of the impacts of a business enterprise. Who is it serving and why? Mackey contends that with the right leadership, the right values, it is not only possible but essential that capitalism create win-win, or win-win-win scenarios. He writes of stakeholders, not shareholders. This is but one small of example of his emphasis on moral leadership. Mackey does not believe in zero-sum thinking.
It is impressive and inspiring. Moreover, Mackey has the personal history to show how this kind of leadership is more than possible. It can accomplished and be transformative. The Whole Foods success story is proof of what is possible. Mackey was a servant leader, he built teams, and a sense of mission pervaded the growth of Whole Foods into a special kind of grocery store.
The book is also good on day-to-day practical advice. Mackey values the importance of rest, of active listening, and of loving one’s fellow employees. He calls for innovation, asks us to take risks, and to look for ways that an organization can create value. Mackey insists on behaving with integrity.
On the other hand, missing from the book are the innumerable scenarios that call into question win-win thinking, the multitude of sectors, environment and situations that are zero-sum. Mackey is not a scholar or academician. Accordingly, he has little interest in rigorously testing or challenging his ideas in the text. For example, Mackey is profoundly anti-union, arguing that we are “beyond unions.” Yet in many work settings, unions are key stakeholders, and often for very good reasons. The book does not address questions of sexism or racism, when moral leadership is on the line. His conceptions and interest in the basic economy is grounded in individual businesses, not broad sectors or the state. It is also ahistorical. Furthermore, the book is light on politics. Conscious Leadership’s arguments are not supported by much data, either. Personal story and experience are the building blocks of Mackey’s arguments. He is widely read, though, and more than able to work in the relevant quote or anecdote.
What remains is a very interesting and personal account by a leader about his values and leadership. It is a book that works to address really big issues, and does so most successfully when its framing is more narrow. Leadership, after all, is situational. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Mackey’s leadership theories, too, are best considered within certain situations. Conscious Leadership is probably most apt for business leaders, in place or aspiring, and especially for those in the private sector. It is attuned to the entrepreneurial mindset. A critical read of Conscious Leadership gives much to mull over, not so much as a plan for leadership as a different concept of what it might entail and under what circumstances. Mackey, an extremely impressive entrepreneur, is a very interesting thinker.